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Review

Language of Dance 

By Gregory C. Beatty

Stream of Dance Festival 

Stream of Dance Festival

Regina April 23-26, 2003 

Origins 

Since its founding in 1986, New Dance Horizons has gained strength with each passing year. In 2002, it took its most ambitious step yet, organizing and presenting Stream of Dance, a three-day festival devoted to prairie dance. “We’ve presented prairie dance artists since our inception,” noted artistic director Robin Poitras. “But there wasn’t the volume of dancers and choreographers there is now. There used to be a festival in Winnipeg that was a major national event, but it folded. We just felt it was time. There’s such a burgeoning community out here.”

The goal, said Poitras, was to provide a venue for prairie dance artists to connect with each other, and to familiarize presenters from outside the region with the talent that exists here. In asserting that prairie dance possesses a distinct sensibility, Poitras observed that, “as artists we’re always influenced by our place and time. The landscape, and history and the way the wind blows through us, all impact in elusive and sometimes obvious ways.”

“Living on the prairies, there’s also the idea of being isolated from centres of population, cultural activity and financial power,” agreed Davida Monk (Calgary) in a 2002 interview. “But there are advantages to that - as we’re also isolated from the congestion or lack of creative space in larger centres. So there’s a certain freedom to the isolation.

Building on discussion that arose from panels hosted by Regina educator Dr. Ann Kipling Brown and Montréal critic Philip Szporer in 2002, Poitras elected to make “language of dance” the 2003 festival’s theme. “It’s interesting to focus a festival around a theme, and this theme emerged last fall when I was looking at Denise Clarke (Calgary), who I’d wanted to bring to Regina for a long time.” While Clarke and many other festival artists employed different types of text in their work, the language of dance, says Poitras, “doesn’t necessarily refer to spoken and written language. The body itself is capable of [transmitting] meaning.”

As with the 2002 festival, an eclectic mix of dance styles was featured this year - ballet, bellydance, bhangra, contemporary. “People enter dance through so many different streams,” says Poitras. “Seeing dance come out of a dance school is very exciting; seeing dance come out of community and cultural organizations is very exciting. Then there are the traditional streams like the Conservatory [of Performing Arts].” Equally diverse was the age range of participants from Poco Loco, a high school dance/percussion troupe, to senior dancer/choreographers like Winnipeg’s Rachel Browne and Stephanie Ballard. 

One new wrinkle was the noon-hour performance series on a downtown pedestrian mall. Wednesday, the festival kicked off with a procession by The Pelican Five. Drawing on influences as diverse as visual art, pop music, poetry and the lifecycle of great white pelicans, The Pelican Five is part of a larger project created by Poitras, “The Pelican Nocturne”, which will be performed in June at the Canada Dance Festival off-year Dance Advance in Ottawa. With welcome cooperation from the weather, the free daytime events - which also included performances by the Youth Ballet Company of Saskatchewan, Deborah Dunn (Trial and Eros), Susan Elliot (Anatomica) and Poco Loco - heightened the festival’s profile, while also exposing Reginans to contemporary dance. 

 

MacKenzie Art Gallery 

Featured Wednesday and Thursday night was Denise Clarke’s “Sign Language” (One Yellow Rabbit), first performed in 2001. It consisted of two parts: a sixty-five-minute physical and verbal meditation on aging and mortality, and a post-show chat during which Clarke expounded on her process. Having read Clarke’s press pack, I knew she incorporated sign language into her show, which opened with a monologue inspired by Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” that described Clarke’s ongoing quest for inner peace. At first, I thought she was simply embellishing her text with a host of evocative gestures, but I soon realized their true significance. Overall, the audience responded more heartily to the signs than Clarke’s words, attesting not only to the eloquence of sign language, but to the body’s inherent power as a communication medium. The sign for “anxiety” (rubbing one’s belly to indicate distress), for instance, visually articulates Clarke’s concern about becoming (and not becoming) pregnant at different stages in her life. At one point she strips down to a G-string. While lamenting the toll time has taken on her forty-six-year-old flesh, she also revels in her body’s still formidable strength and vigor. But as a later segment choreographed to the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part makes clear, “Sign Language” is about more than just the vagaries of corporeal existence. What lies at its heart is Clarke’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. 

 

Seven Minutes Max 

With one exception (Patricia Colbert-Houle’s “Mon Corps Sage, Mon Ame Rouillee: Premiere Etude”) the works presented in this Friday evening program were all under seven minutes. The highlight was Meredith Larocque’s “Tesselation”. With a backdrop comprised of a projected image of a Luna moth, Larocque appeared intent on using the insect as a metaphor for growth and maturation in her own life. At one point, she flutters her arms like a moth newly emerged from a cocoon, while at the piece’s culmination she stands at the center of the image, as if merging her body with that of the moth. In a more performative vein was “Home?”, in which Jackie Latendresse (Free Flow Dance Theatre) dramatizes the anxiety she experienced upon moving from Toronto to Saskatoon. At the start she balances precariously inside an open suitcase - which at another point seems almost to attack her - yet by the end she succeeds in closing the suitcase and moves with more assertiveness, indicating that she’s reconciled herself to the move. Colbert-Houle’s piece evinced a similar sense of transition. Originally from Québec, she moved with her partner Andre Valiquette to Moose Jaw in 1998. Along with Valiquette and septuagenarian Gerald Smith, and such props as a tree branch, a pile of bricks and an antique bathtub, she explores the impact nature and socially constructed spaces have on our identity. “Element: Fire” (excerpt from “Medicine Wheel”) by Rosa Mirijello-Haynes; “Entwined” (City Centre Dance); and Corrine Harle’s “Certainties II: Have We Met?” were pure dance works. “Element” features some strong solo and group movement by Mirijello-Haynes and her kathak dance troupe. “Entwined” and “Certainties II” also explore the dynamics of group interaction, with dancers alternately asserting their individuality, then returning to the synchronized pattern of movement danced by their fellow performers. 

 

Dancing Mid-Stream 

Friday’s second program showcased mid-career artists. As an art critic, I found Geraldine Manossa’s “ISKWEW” particularly compelling. It was inspired by a Rebecca Belmore installation commemorating the murders of more than fifty Vancouver women (the majority Aboriginal) over several years. As the piece opens, sixteen-year-old Christa Maktaak is positioned inside a stylized canoe composed of a metal bracket. Later, she flips it over to make an arc. Read literally as an overturned canoe, it functions as a sign of distress. Through her action of laying under it, and sliding through it, Maktaak evokes thoughts of burial, and of a vortex that, unleashed by society’s indifference toward their plight, drew the women inexorably to their deaths. While choreographed independently from “ISKWEW”, Krista Solheim’s “The Crying Dance” inspired thematic associations. At the outset, she stands rooted on the stage, her arms windmilling wildly, as if symbolizing a cascade of tears. Later, she begins to move with increasing urgency about the stage, culminating in her trembling violently. Finally, she stares upward beatifically, as if purged of her torment, while sacred music plays. Rounding out the program was Susan Elliot’s “When a Person Enters a Structure” and a trio of works by Deborah Dunn: “Fuse”, “Burnt Norton” and “The Birds is Coming”. In Elliot’s work, which also drew on Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” for inspiration, she executes a series of somewhat laboured movements (in some instances using her hands to manipulate her head and limbs) before she is able to rise to her feet and move with more vigor. While Dunn’s second piece is not a literal translation of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton”, she does employ some sound effects that recreate the experience of walking in a rose garden. As well, after Eliot’s observation (voiced by Sir Alec Guinness in the soundscape) that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”, she appears in front of a spotlight, casting an immense shadow on the back wall that inspired thoughts of Plato’s philosophical conundrum about a prisoner trapped in a cave. 

 

Planet Regina 

To provide a venue for festival performers and patrons to socialize, NDH created the Planet Regina Dance Bar. Performances were held prior to “Sign Language” on Wednesday and Thursday, and following the Friday and Saturday programs. One highlight was flamenco dancer Barbara Chlopan, accompanied by guitarists Philippe Meunier and Matt Kaip. Born in Regina, Chlopan studied ballet as a child. Upon enrolling in the Boston Conservatory, she found her passion waning. “My second year, I remember hearing the flamenco class when I was in my pointe class, and always wishing I was there,” she recalled. The next year, she switched. Flamenco has its roots in nomadic gypsy culture. Following the Golden Age of cafes cantentes (flamenco bars) from 1881 to 1900, the art form became commercialized. It was this version Chlopan studied in Boston, and on a subsequent trip to Grenada in 1997. Disillusioned, she returned to Regina and stopped dancing for a while until Poitras urged her to teach some workshops. Invigorated by the interest shown by local dancers, she visited Jerez. “There, flamenco’s still a real traditional form. I much prefer it. There’s something amazing about hearing songs that are so old.” When she dances, Chlopan eschews recorded music. In flamenco, communication between the guitarist and dancer is vital. Also key to a successful performance is audience interaction. Thus, she appreciated being able to perform at Planet Regina, as opposed to the main stage, which more closely resembled the atmosphere of a cafe cantentes. 

To spark discussion among festival attendees, NDH recruited a team of writers and visual artists to create responses to selected performances. As originally conceived, team members Amber Chadwick, Antoinette Herivel, Estelle Bonetto, Margaret Bessai, Felipe Diaz, Marnie Badham, Stephanie Dean, Tara Solheim and Jack Severson were to produce a written or visual response by the following evening that would be posted on a bulletin board in Planet Regina. While some team members proved unable to work under such a severe time constraint, a dozen or so responses were received, and it was Poitras’ opinion that they did inspire people to engage more deeply with the dance works. While conceding that “making art about someone else’s art was a challenge”, Bessai noted that artists are always “standing on the cultural shoulders of previous generations. In my own work, I’ve become obsessed with trying to show movement. The trick was to make something that spoke of me, and my feeling toward the dance - and not [produce] some generic statement that would read like an ad agency blurb on dance.” Writer Tara Solheim found the experience similarly rewarding: “Being part of the Language of Dance Team brought a new perspective to my observation of dance. I gave myself the exercise of attempting to transcribe the movement language into written poetic language; to maintain mood, energy, speed, humour/severity in my response to each piece. As the festival progressed, words flowed more easily as I scribbled in the dark of the theatre. Sifting through the words I’d written later, I gleaned some useful [material] which I will use in further writing.” 

 

Language of Dance Panel 

With the assistance of Denise Clarke, Geraldine Manossa, Deborah Dunn and Rachel Browne, co-chairs Dr. Kipling Brown and myself endeavoured on a rainy Saturday afternoon to assess the importance of language - be it written, oral, visual or symbolic - in the development of dance literacy and practice. In the pieces presented by Manossa, Dunn and Browne, they derived inspiration from works in other disciplines (visual art, poetry and classical music respectively), so they discussed the process they’d gone through to translate those texts into dance language. Clarke, conversely, spoke about her decision to incorporate language into a dance work. Kipling Brown examined the use of notation to document/describe dance works, and I discussed the challenges I’d encountered as a critic writing occasionally on dance.

Following the panel, First Nations artist Anthony Dieter screened “Sky Dancer”, a digital video that he ultimately intends to use in a visual art installation. Central to the work is the pixellated image of three men performing a grass dance to a heart-like drum beat. As NDH’s artistic director, Poitras has long been interested in Aboriginal dance. “The powwow circuit is as strong, if not stronger, than any dance circuit in Canada,” she said. “Some people consider it an historical form akin to folk dance. But I think it’s very contemporary. One of the things that has always fascinated me about powwow is the improvisation. When you watch a powwow dancer, there may be a traditional vocabulary of steps, but they’re improvising to the music. And modern dance relies very much on improvisation.” 

 

Grand Dames of Dance

Intended as a salute to senior Canadian dance artists, Saturday’s program was supposed to include “Black Angels” (Ruth Cansfield Dance, Winnipeg). Unfortunately, a blizzard in Calgary prevented one of the cast, dancer Treasure Waddell, from reaching Regina. Leading off the evening was Connie Moker Wernikowski’s “Triptych”. Inspired by her fascination with the Christian figure of Mary, the piece opens with her daughter Katrina portraying Mary as a young virgin, wrestling with the news delivered by an angel that she is to give birth to Jesus. Dressed in the same green tunic as Katrina, Moker Wernikowski dances the second segment as an adult Mary, distraught at having to watch her son tortured and killed on the cross. In the final segment, mother and daughter appear on stage together, evoking through their support for each other a notion of transcendence consistent with Jesus’ resurrection.

Figuring prominently in the works by Rachel Browne and Stephanie Ballard was Chopin. Having seen Marie Chouinard’s choreographic interpretation of Chopin’s 24 Preludes at a NDH event in February, I appreciated the opportunity to see excerpts from Browne’s “Sunstorm”, which was inspired by the same composition. When Browne began the project, she noted during Saturday’s panel, she was convalescing from hip surgery, and several of the preludes, especially those with a slower tempo, do convey a sense of infirmity. With the faster-paced preludes, conversely, she celebrates the vitality of her young dancers. While some of those movements were too exuberant for my taste, I thought Browne, by allowing one “dance” to segue into the next, handled the transitions between the preludes deftly. For “George” (excerpts), Ballard drew directly on Chopin’s life for inspiration, presenting a work meant to “evoke an essence and memory” of George Sand, a novelist/playwright who conducted an eight-year love affair with Chopin, and also scandalized French society by wearing trousers and a top hat. Structured as a series of vignettes, in which a high-backed chair figures prominently, “George” has a strong theatrical sensibility that captures both the unabashed eroticism of Sand’s affair with Chopin, and the poignancy of their break-up two years before his death. 

 

Outflow 

While NDH is still undecided about Stream of Dance’s long-term format (options include rotating it among prairie cities, and holding it every two ears) plans currently call for the festival to be held in 2004. For Jackie Latendresse this is welcome news: “This type of festival is of crucial importance to Saskatchewan,” she said. “The [prairie] dance community is fairly isolated by the geography of the country and is often not looked at as a major part of the Canadian dance scene. For me, the festival provided not only a much-needed opportunity to present my work, but also a chance to attend other shows featuring work of my peers. I’ve traveled extensively all over Canada and attended many festivals and Stream of Dance ranks right up there!” 

 

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